Enjoy the opening chapter of Mary Peace Finley's White Grizzly:)
Julio stopped at the crest of a sand hill and stared. Below, Bent’s Fort rose from the prairie, tall and solid as rock, two stories high with double gates opened wide as if in welcome. He dropped to his knees, swung the basket off his back, and let it tumble onto the sand. "Someone in there has to know, Chivita."
With an excited "Eerp!" Chivita leaped into Julio’s arms, a bundle of black and white, nuzzling his chin and ears with her nose. "That’s it, Chivita!" Julio ducked away from her tickling tongue. "Clean me up. Make me look good before we go inside."
Chivita backed away and cocked her head, one brow raised.
Julio glanced down at his bare chest, the ragged pantalones, pants that were new and white when he and Papá left Taos, and at the beaded Cheyenne moccasins on his feet. "You’re right. Impossible." He stood, brushing away strands of sun-bleached hair that dangled like yellow straw in front of his eyes. He slipped his reed flute into the leather bag at his side, straightened the shoulder strap, and wiggled the woven basket into place on his back. "Vamos, Chivita. Let’s go."
After three days alone since he had parted company with the Cheyenne, the noise from Bent’s Fort thundered against his ears. It looked as if the whole world had come here to trade—or to join the eastbound spring caravan. A line of wagons stretched for half a mile, waiting to be hitched to mules or oxen or horses. Beneath a large United States flag that slapped against a pole above the second floor, people rushed back and forth between the Fort and the wagons.
Julio sprinted toward the gates, but slowed and traced the sign of the cross over his forehead and chest as he passed a mound of freshly turned dirt where a wooden cross marked a new grave. He couldn’t read the words on the marker, but the date was the same as the date he’d carved less than two months ago on the aspen tree near Papá’s lonely grave in the mountains—1845. A gunshot jolted him from the memory of digging with Papá’s shiny new coffeepot and his own bare hands.
Men cheered. The impact of pounding hoofs vibrated through his moccasins, and he tasted dust billowing from beneath the surface layer of mud that remained after the days of rain. Through an opening between wagons, he spotted an oval racetrack to the north of the thick Fort walls. "It’s just a horse race, Chivita. Not an attack."
Trampled grass and wagon ruts narrowed as the toes of his moccasins nosed toward the gates. He hopped over the tongue of a wagon, and his hand reached out to the studded metal that clad the enormous gate. The metal was cold to his touch, almost sharp.
"Hola." He called out. "Hello?"
A man gave him a strange look, but didn’t answer.
"Vamos, Chivita, " Julio whispered, patting his leg, and eased into the cool, dark entryway. He blinked in the sudden darkness, groping for the wall to guide him. A shiver went through him, not from the cool adobe bricks, but from touching walls Papá had made. Ay, Papá! he thought, I wish you were here.
"Hey! Watch where you’re going!" Silhouetted black against the glaring light, a burly man balancing a huge square bundle on his shoulder barreled into the dark passageway, nearly knocking Julio down. "You can’t go inside! Injuns trade here." The profile of the man’s bearded chin pointed toward the entryway wall. "At that window." The man swaggered on.
"What do you have?" A dim face appeared at the small opening in the thick adobe wall.
Julio backed away. "Nothing."
"Then git on back outside."
"I don’t have anything to trade." Julio stepped up to the window. " I came to see Mr. Bent."
"Tarnation!" the voice exclaimed. "Hey, Red!" the man called over his shoulder. "This feller speaks English better than you do!"
"What does he want?"
"Says he wants to see William."
Julio peered through the window into a room filled with trade goods, spotted the second man who was unloading a wooden box of clay pipes onto a shelf, and raised his voice so he would hear. "I have to talk with Mr. Bent."
The redheaded man set the pipes down. "I’ll see what he wants. Come on in," he called to Julio.
Julio stepped from the passageway into a large courtyard. Sunshine beat down and reflected from the light colored dirt. Squinting as his eyes adjusted to the brightness, Julio focused on rows of doors. So many doors! Doors all around the ground floor, doors off the second floor catwalk, and wide passageways that led farther back off the courtyard. Bent’s Fort was as big as all of Taos! From the wonderful aroma of roasting meat and boiling coffee, Julio knew someone was cooking behind one door back there, and his stomach rumbled. Through another doorway, he saw the glow of coals and heard the hiss of bellows and the clanging of a hammer against metal and, from another, the sound of a saw cutting wood.
The man with bright red hair and a nose covered with rusty red freckles and flaking white skin stepped from inside the trade room.
"Hello," Julio said.
The redhead frowned, looking him over from the tips of his moccasins to the top of his head. "Well, where did you come from?"
"From Taos. I need to talk with Mr. Bent."
Red chuckled lightly and shook his head. "Mr. Bent is a busy man. A very busy man, especially today."
"But I have to see him. He knows I’m coming."
Red’s eyebrows knotted slightly. "Well, you can talk to me. What do you need?"
"I’m Julio Montoya." Julio watched Red’s eyes, but there was no look of recognition. "Enrique’s son." Still no look of understanding. "I’m Julio Montoya," he said again. "I’m the son of Enrique Montoya, the adobe maker from Taos."
"Enrique?" Red’s eyebrows lurched, and once again he studied Julio from top to toe. The look on his face changed from disbelief to uncertainty. "You’re Enrique’s son?"
"Well, er, ummm." Red glanced toward the traderoom door, then over his shoulder toward the second floor, hesitating. "Well, I don’t know," he said. "Follow me. I’ll see."
Julio followed Red across the courtyard toward a split log stairway that led to the second-floor catwalk.
"Ven! Come!" Julio urged Chivita up the stairs, then followed Red toward a little house that looked to Julio like Mamá’s tiny adobe casita in Taos, except it sat on a flat roof instead of on the ground beside a stream.
A few yards from the casita Red stopped. "Wait here," he said. He approached the door, paused, and cautiously stepped inside.
Julio listened, but hearing no voices, turned and looked out over the adobe wall that surrounded the second floor. This view was even better than if he had climbed high in a cottonwood tree. With no branches in the way, he could see the vast plains surrounding the Fort and the sheep grazing by the Nepesta, the river Americans call the Arkansas and Cheyenne call the Arrow Flint. Until yesterday the tipis of the Cheyenne village had clustered there, each with its own fire circle. Now nothing was left of the village but pressed grass, dead coals, and discarded bones, as if a whole piece of his life had been sliced away. Across the western horizon, vast mountain ranges stretched as far as he could see north and south. "How did we ever make it through those mountains, Chivita?"
Chivita jumped up, front paws on his leg, but catapulted off barking at the sound of a loud, angry-sounding voice.
"—been expecting him for days! Bring him in!"
"Easy, Chivita." Julio gave the signal to quiet.
Red motioned to Julio from the door of the casita and stepped aside.
So this was William Bent! Julio had imagined the owner of Bent’s Fort as a giant, but the man with dark hair and sunken eyes leaning over papers and writing at a small wooden table was not a big man at all. Julio rapped against the doorframe with his knuckles. "Pardon me, Mr., Bent. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to ask you a question."
William Bent looked up.
"I’m Julio Montoya. My papá, Enrique Montoya, helped you build this Fort. He was an adobe maker."
The pen dropped. Bent pushed the palms of his hands flat against the table top, slowly stood, then circled around Julio, turning him to face the light. "You’re not Enrique’s son." He squinted into Julio’s eyes. "You can’t be! With the yellow hair? And green eyes? Who put you up to this? Texans? Get him out of here, Red."
Red’s hand tightened around Julio’s arm. "What shall I do with him?"
"Just get him out of here. Send him back to wherever he came from." Bent waved his hand as if shooing a fly and sat down at his desk.
"I’m from Taos, Mr. Bent!" Julio struggled against Red. "And I am Julio Montoya! Enrique was my papá." He grabbed the doorframe "Papá came home with your letter, and you brother Charles sent a message back to you."
Bent looked up, frowning. "A message?" he grumbled, "About what?"
"I-I don’t know," Julio stammered. "Papá said it was about war. He said you were worried about what’s going to happen."
"Any fool knows that," Bent said with a harrumph.
"After we left Taos, we—Papá and I—tried to catch up with the wagons, but the Jicarilla Apaches found us and . . . and . . . " Julio pressed his eyes closed. Papá’s death was too horrible to remember.
Julio heard Bent’s chair scrape against the dirt floor, and Red’s grip on his arm relaxed.
"Where’s the message?" Bent stood before him with his hand extended.
"Ay, no!" Julio’s knees went weak. "Didn’t you get it? After Papá—after everything that happened—I sent the message to you with a sheepherder. Helacio was coming with a wagon train."
Julio saw Bent glance over his head and nod, and Red turned loose of Julio’s arm. Bent’s face softened. "Well, you sure don’t look like you could be Enrique’s son." He looked down at the floor and signed. "I’m sorry about your father, Julio." He ran his hand over a stubble of beard. "Awful sorry. Here, sit down. You’ve had a long, hard journey." As Bent slumped back into his chair, Julio eased down onto the edge of a wooden stool.
"Julio, your father was a fine man, an honorable man. I couldn’t have built this Fort without him." Bent leaned forward and began to sort through a stack of papers on his desk. At the sight of the torn message stained with Papá’s blood, Julio’s stomach lurched, and he looked away. "The sheepherder told me those confounded Apaches killed your papá," Bent said. "How did you escape? How did you get here?"
How could he possibly answer? So much had happened. "At first, along. The apaches took everything, even Chivita. I came on, but I lost the trail in a snowstorm. Chivita found me. I was sick. We were both starving, and I was snow-blind." He reached down to touch Chivita. "Then the Cheyenne helped us. But I had to get here, Mr. Bent. I had to see you. There’s something I have to know."
"Well, I know one thing for sure." Bent shook his head. "You’re lucky you made it. Lucky you escaped the Apache, lucky Texas freebooters didn’t find you and toss your body to the wolves. Your papá would be proud of you. Very proud." Bent ran his hand across his chin, and for a moment his thoughts seemed far away. Then abruptly he looked up. "How old are you anyway?"
"I don’t know," Julio said. "Thirteen, maybe fourteen. But that’s what I want to know! I want to know when I was born. And where!" Julio took in a long, deep breath. For as long as he could remember, this was the moment he’d been waiting for. Fighting to control his voice, he began again. "I’ve always looked different from the rest of my family—this hair, this light skin. Just before Papá died, he told me why."
Julio looked from Bent to Red and back again.
"Papá said he found me near a burned-out wagon along the Purgatory River. I was the only one left alive." Squaring his shoulders, Julio looked straight into Bent’s deep-set eyes. "Who were those people, Mr. Bent? Where did they come from? Papá said someone here at Bent’s Fort knows. Did he tell you, Mr. Bent? Do you know who I am?"
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